Gingrich, coming off a fiery and widely praised performance in Monday night’s debate, was particularly aggressive in suggesting that Santorum and Perry should bow out, arguing that a vote for either is essentially a vote for Romney because they can’t win.
Santorum noted that there have been two contests so far and he’s beaten Gingrich in both, so he wasn’t in any mood to take his advice.
Perry lumped the two together and said both were Washington insiders. South Carolinians would come around to his outsider effort, he said.
Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin added a twist to the contest Tuesday night, saying she would vote for Gingrich in the South Carolina primary if she could. Palin, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee four years ago, has not formally endorsed a candidate.
“In order to keep this thing going, I’d vote for Newt and I would want this to continue — more debates, more vetting of candidates, because we know the mistake made in our country four years ago was having a candidate who was not vetted to the degree that he should have been,” she told Fox News’s Sean Hannity.
It was not clear whether she was referring to Barack Obama or another candidate.
The inability of the candidates or voters to coalesce around a single conservative leaves in place the splintered dynamic that has enabled Romney to remain at the front of the field. The last-minute sniping made it appear increasingly unlikely that any of the three would break from the pack, potentially leaving Romney with a clear path to victory in Saturday’s primary.
“At this point, it’s a low chance that anyone would truly consolidate conservative support,” said Joel Sawyer, a former executive director of the South Carolina Republican Party who until Monday was supporting former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. “Nobody has really been able to put a dent in Romney.”
The GOP race is playing out in much the same way it did in 2008, when Sen. John McCain defeated an equally divided conservative field in South Carolina and went on to capture the nomination.
Sawyer said the contenders have spent so much time bashing one another that “this is a play for second . . . rather than going after the front-runner.”
With time running out, Gingrich argued Tuesday that he is the only candidate who has a realistic shot at beating Romney. Recent polls have showed Gingrich running ahead of Santorum and Perry in the Palmetto State.
“Any vote for Santorum or Perry is, in effect, a vote to help Romney become the nominee,” he said at an event at an art gallery in Florence on Tuesday. Later, in Aiken, he noted: “The only reason that Governor Romney is ahead at this moment is that the conservatives are split three ways.”